Filmmaker Gavin O’Connor has had a lot of ups and downs in his career, at least in terms of his films getting a proper release, but he’s still managed to establish himself as a director that actors want to work with, whether it’s Edward Norton and Colin Farrell for his crime drama Pride & Glory or Natalie Portman in the Western Jane Got a Gun. Probably O’Connor’s strongest genre to date though has been his popular sports films, Miracle and Warrior, which go into the world of Olympic hockey and mixed martial arts, respectively.
O’Connor’s latest movie The Accountant is an action-thriller starring Ben Affleck as Christian Wolff, known in the criminal circuit as “The Accountant,” not just for the mathematical skills he’s able to use for laundering money, but also for the efficiency with which he takes down the targets he’s hired to eliminate. As the feds, in the form of J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson, are pursuing this mysterious assassin, another killer (Jon Bernthal) is also hot on his tail, just as Christian has been assigned to help a legit corporation find money that’s been stolen from them.
LRM got on the phone with O’Connor a few weeks back for the following interview.
LRM: It’s been a minute, or more like five years, but it’s great talking to you again. I know “Warrior” didn’t do as well as either of us hoped, but I always find fans of the movie who saw it after it left theaters.
Gavin O’Connor: (laughs) I appreciate that. That was a frustrating experience with a studio that was marketing a film where I was screaming and kicking and jumping up and down and pulling my hair out. I’m happy to say that’s not happening at Warner Bros. It’s an entirely different experience.
LRM: They’re doing great getting the movie out there, but I feel like you’ve now had three experiences of movies that just didn’t get the attention, so this is one of the first since “Miracle” that is getting decent marketing and people know about the movie, which is great. I know you’re a writer yourself. How did you find the script and what interested you about directing someone else’s script?
O’Connor: That’s an interesting question. It’s a whole different process, because when you write something or co-write something, you’re building it from the ground up, so I’m already starting to figure out, not only the architecture and construction of a screenplay, but as I’m doing that, starting to visualize it and getting a sense of what it’s going to sound like and the music and the instrumentation and the visual style. When you read someone else’s script, you’re on the outside, now you have climb into it. So it’s a whole different process. I was sent the script by the producers, Lynette Howell and Mark Williams. Some things you just can’t unread. I just found it to be incredibly refreshing and unlike anything I ever read before. It was an original piece of material and a lead character that I felt was very daring to have a lead character that was on the spectrum. That was really intriguing to me. I met with them about it and explained to them how I’d want to make the movie, because you can take a script and kind of tonally do a lot of different things with it. You could have taken this movie and really elevated it into a more hyper-real superheroey kind of action movie, and I definitely pushed towards grounding it as much as I can in a reality and an honest and an authenticity. They hired me, and then I got the script to Ben, and Ben really liked it. And then he and I met and talked about what the movie was about for me and what I was trying to say. What I needed from him was I said, “You can’t just show up on set on Day 1 and play somebody with Asperger’s. It’s going to require a lot of research, so I’ll need to know that you’re going to do that, and I need to know you’re going to do all the fight training.” I knew how I wanted to shoot the action. In Batman, you can wear a mask so you can have a stuntman actually do it, and I wanted him to do it. He trained for three months to do all the action.
LRM: I assumed he must have already done “Batman v Superman” and been in pretty good shape for that at least.
O’Connor: Yeah, he had finished that. He was actually shooting it when I sent him the script. He was at the end of the shoot when I sent it to him, and he finished that and took a little time off and then we went on this.
LRM: It’s such an interesting movie because it has the Asperger’s element, the accounting and money laundering angle and the crime angle. How easy or hard was it to figure out how to approach this and did you have to do a lot of your own research for it?
O’Connor: That was really challenging, because it was sort of a cocktail of genres. It’s a puzzle film, it’s a thriller, it’s an action film, it’s a character study. It was really important to me that I wanted the film to be fun, but with serious subject matter so it was tricky to get the tone right. It was a bit of a razor’s edge, and that’s what I really kept my cinema GPS on all the time is making sure — among other things — that I’m straddling that very delicate line of tone.
LRM: I was a little concerned because when you meet Christian in the opening scene and the doctor says he doesn’t want to label it, I was worried that you weren’t going to even mention autism or Asperger’s. But you got into it more as it went along.
O’Connor: Yeah, I didn’t want to start the movie saying it, because my intention with the movie — because it’s a puzzle film — is to keep the audience off-balance until it’s over, so why give out information so soon?
LRM: But even the marketing hasn’t shied away from the fact that he was a kid who has other abilities that he uses later in life, but it’s hard to market a movie like this, but they did not shy away from that aspect of the story.
O’Connor: You can’t. I mean, that’s who he is, so we’re all embracing it. For me, I wanted the movie to celebrate someone who is different. How do you do that in cinema today without getting the money to make that? You have to incorporate all the action that puts people in seats, but there is a message to the movie about celebrating being different, the diversity. We need to be celebrating that in our country, so the idea of being able to have a protagonist who is different is important to me.
LRM: Definitely. Let’s talk to Ben, who is a great director in his own right. When you send a script to him, do you worry that he might say, “Oh, I like this script. I should direct it.”
LRM: What’s it like working with an actor who has proven his own great directing skills. Does that make your job easier or harder?
O’Connor: Oh, it’s easier, because he’s an actor, so he signed up for the movie because he loved the character, and we’ve wanted to work together. he didn’t want to direct the movie, he wanted to act in the movie. The beauty of Ben that you get because of his directing experiences is he knows how hard the job is, so he shows up on time, he knows all his lines, he does all the work. He’s kind to everybody. He doesn’t create problems, because as a director, he’s been in my shoes, and as a director, you want actors and crew and everybody to be lifting the movie, not sinking it. That’s what he does.
LRM: I think one of the breakouts was Cynthias Addai-Robinson. I don’t watch a lot of television so I wasn’t familiar with her work, but she’s great and most of her scenes are with JK, an excellent veteran. Why was it important to cast someone new or lesser known for her character?
O’Connor: That was the one role in my mind that if I could get an unknown… this movie I wanted it to have recognizable faces, but I knew that for that one particular role—because she’s the dog with the bone, she’s the one the hunt — I liked the idea of discovering someone and hiring an unknown. I must have met hundreds of actresses for that part, and when she came on, there’s this indefinable thing. I just really liked her. She just felt right for it. I had her come back a couple of times and then I met her for a coffee, and I really liked her as a person, and I thought she had the combination of this sort of grit and tenacity and intelligence, and also you can feel that she’s from the streets but she rose above it. She just had all the qualities I was looking for.
LRM: You’ve done action before but it was mostly in sports movies like “Warrior” and “Miracle,” in which the action was very specific to the sports where this had more flexibility, so how did you want to approach the fighting styles for Ben and Jon Bernthal?
O’Connor: The action was all informed by figuring out what Chris’s fighting style is. I worked with the same guys that I did Warrior — Fernando Chien and Sam Hargrave are my fight guys — so I hired them and we’d just sit in my house and we started with, “How was he trained? What kind of fighting style?” And then Fern introduced me to all these different global type of fighting styles, and he introduced me to this style called Pencak Silat, which is an Indonesian martial art, so once I started investigating that, I just really liked its efficiency. It was just really cinematic and just had the kind of pizzazz to it. It was really flashy, but really efficient, so I said, “This guy is a mathematical genius. I think he would be eliminating people as mathematically fast as possible.” Once we decided on that, that started to inform how we were going to do all the action. There was action built into the script but we changed all the action based on the character we were creating, just like we changed the flashbacks based on the character, so once we decided on that, then we made a flashback in Indonesia. We just started figuring it out and talking about what could happen in each scene. That’s the fun stuff, and then Fern and Sam would go get stunt guys to do a visual of it. I’d look at it and get all that right and then we’d insert Ben into it.
LRM: Was having so many locations one of the movie’s challenges? You essentially have two movies going on with the different characters and then you have the flashbacks. Was it hard finding a place that can fit all the stuff you needed to film?
O’Connor: It’s just part of the deal making movies, trying to figure out what the locations are and how you work that into the production, so you get as much time shooting and not a lot of time travelling because you have a 12-hour day. That’s just part of the chess of production.
LRM: I guess so, but I feel this has more locations and more pieces. Like you say, it’s a puzzle movie.
O’Connor: Yeah, it did. It had a lot of locations, so you just get strategic about trying to get locations that are near each other, so if you have to do a company move, you’re not travelling two hours and stuff like that.
LRM: You mentioned your fight crew and one other person you worked with again is composer Mark Isham for the music. You’ve done a couple movies with him now, very different movies in fact. Do you bring him in earlier on in production or do you just send him the movie as it’s edited and he goes from there? How do you work with him?
O’Connor: With Mark, I bring him in well before I even start shooting, and we start talking about the sound and the music and the score and the instrumentation. It just becomes an evolving thing from the conversations early on, through production into post.
LRM: When you were talking about tone, music is often what drives the tone, which is why I was curious.
O’Connor: What I do with him is that I just talk about what the scene’s about, what the emotion in the scene is, what I’m trying to express and then start talking about instrumentation and things like that. It’s just sort of an organic process just that it’s always evolving.
LRM: You’re a writer yourself, so have you written anything you hope to direct next? What’s your next plan?
O’Connor: I’m actually going to go to a Netflix series. There’s a woman Venna Sud, who created a show called The Killing, and her new show is a show called 7 Seconds, and she had sent me the pilot script and I really liked it and then she walked me through what the season is. I’ve partnered with her, and we’re going to do a series for Netflix, and I’m going to shoot the pilot and then be on the series with her.
LRM: Netflix is really killing it with so much content and so much good content.
O’Connor: I know.
LRM: It used to be when you used to do a TV pilot, and you’d never know if one of the networks would pick it up or not, but Netflix is taking over the movie studios and the television networks.
O’Connor: Yeah, they do great work, and they’ve been a fantastic partner, so it’s been really good.
LRM: Anyway, great talking to you and hopefully we’ll speak again soon and there’ll be more to talk about.
O’Connor: I know, right. I really appreciate it and thanks for bringing up Warrior. That was cool.
LRM: Believe me, it’s still one of my favorite movies from that year and I love when other people discover how good it is, but I was saying that five years ago.
O’Connor: Well, you know what? Maybe there’ll be another one. I’ve been talking to Tommy (Hardy) and Joel (Edgerton).
LRM: That would be awesome and they’ve both been doing well enough it might easier to get a sequel made with the two of them.
The Accountant opens nationwide on Friday, October 14.